IT must have been a tough life for the poor old convicts shipped far from home to a strange southern land that was so opposite to everything they knew.
Exchange cold for hot, wet for dry, congestion for wide open spaces, grey skies for blue, and there wasn’t much left to compare with the old country.
Like Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, Melbourne’s Old Gaol and Tasmania’s Port Arthur, the old Commissariat Store in William Street, gives an insight to the hardship endured by the convicts – and the beginnings of Brisbane.
I mean the heavy anklets of legirons connected by an equally heavy 60cm chain was bad enough in itself, but if you then had to do hard labour, it must have been pure hell. And apparently it was.
The Commissariat Store is the second oldest building in Queensland after the Wickham Terrace windmill which, when the wind wasn’t blowing, became a form of punishment in itself.
A treadmill needed 25 convicts to operate properly and had 24 steps, the average punishment being 160 revolutions of the windmill.
After lifting their legs 3840 times, not surprisingly, there was a disinclination to reoffend. Records show that there were no floggings required for at least four months after completing the treadmill.
The Moreton Bay penal settlement was established in 1824 to take the worst of the offenders. If you got to Sydney town and didn’t mend your ways – and got caught – then it was off to Norfolk Island, Tasmania or Moreton Bay, the worst place to be on mainland Australia.
When it became apparent that the first settlement at Humpybong near Redcliffe wasn’t going to work, Lt Henry Miller, the first commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement set off up the Brisbane River with instructions to settle an area at a turn in the river near Newstead so that they could see any invaders coming.
Instead, he kept going upriver and in 1825, ended up at what was first called King’s Wharf after George IV but was renamed when Queen Victoria ascended the throne and has been called Queen’s Wharf ever since.
The future of Brisbane City was set.
A few years later, in 1828, convicts began building the Commissariat Store beside the river at King’s Wharf, where food, clothing and other goods could be unloaded and stored.
Using Brisbane tuff stone from the cliffs at Kangaroo Point, it took them four months to build the store (wearing legirons all the while) and included a brick drainage system underneath, which was just as well as there was no glass in the windows, only iron bars made by convict blacksmiths.
Other delightful items on show at The Commisariat include the Gallows Beam on which many “noted criminals were hanged” at Boggo Road jail, the last of them being Ernest Austin in 1913.
The old straight jacket doesn’t look like a load of fun to be around either and there’s also a jar containing the famous “convict fingers”.
It was said that when doing hard labour in chains got too much, convicts would cut off their fingers to escape the work. More recent evidence disputes this but the bottle which came from the prison farm at St Helena island in Moreton Bay does contain at least some finger remains.
Apart from the ghoulish, there are also displays covering other aspects of the early days of the colony, most famously parts of the Lucinda, the Queensland Government steamship where the first draft of the Australian constitution was drawn up in 1891.
The bottom floor of the building also has a clever display showing how Brisbane looked in its early days, with little models placed where they would have been and the floor painted to show the river winding around them.
A third floor was placed on top to face William Street in 1913, and this is now the entrance which, as the building faced the river, means visitors enter by the back door.
Of course there’s much more to the story than listed here, which makes the Commissariat Store well worth a visit.
It’s only $6 adults to get in which includes a guide to tell the stories and is open Tuesday to Friday, 10am-4pm.
The free City loop bus stops right across the road.